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The Cognitive Consequences of

Early Bilingualism
University of Houston, Houston, TX

ncreasing numbers of immigrant children are entering the U.S.

educational system (and the larger culture), often with limited or no
knowledge of the English language. One consequence of this phenomenon is increasing linguistic, cultural, ethnic, and religious diversity within
our schools. While such diversity may be viewed as a positive consequence from many perspectives, it also presents challenges to teachers
and educational systems. Educational and policy decisions about appropriate responses to these challenges require systematic research on the role of language, and particularly the use of multiple languages, in cognitive and educational

Educators and policymakers often

worry that learning and living in two languages will slow immigrant children and have
long-term negative effects on their educational achievement and acculturation. However, recent research on bilingual children
suggests a quite different viewindeed, cognitive scientists now suspect that learning
and using more than one language is an ordinary and common aspect of human cognition, and one with significant positive effects
in terms of cognitive flexibility or the ability to use information from the environment
to spontaneously restructure ones knowledge. Thus, a central issue in developing
approaches to bilingualism and its effects on
learning may not be the usual questionone
language or two?but rather a question of balance and of achieving excellence in both languages. Two specific research questions are
generating exciting new conclusions:
1. How do the degree and balance of
childrens knowledge in two languages
affect the cognitive consequences of
2. How does learning in one language
translate to knowledge expressed in

There are certainly many other questions

that one might ask about bilingualism and
cognition, but new advances concerning the
advantages and disadvantages of bilingualism
on the developing cognitive system under2 6 Z e ro to Three No ve mbe r 2008

score the importance of these two issues.

Furthermore, questions about language and
bilingualism are often colored by ideas (not
necessarily empirically established ideas)
about specific immigrant groups. Thus, it is
important to address the issue of the cognitive consequences of bilingualism in the
context of immigrant childrens learning
environments in order to find solutions to the
real-world challenges facing these children in
American educational settings.

Cognitive Benefits of Bilingualism

arlier perspectives on the consequences of bilingualism often viewed

speaking two languages as a source of
developmental problems or delays. New findings from researchers working in a variety of
disciplines, including education, psycholinguistics, psychology, speech and hearing sciences, and neural processes (Bain, 1974; Peal
& Lambert, 1962; Ricciardelli, 1992; Torrance,
Wu, Gowan, & Aliotti, 1970), suggest that
there are positive consequences of bilingualism. Researchers have discovered that the
cognitive systems of bilingual children differ
from those of monolingual children in some
remarkable ways. Learning, speaking, and
using two languages may affect fundamental
aspects of cognitive and neural development,
potentially influencing the way those systems
learn and represent information (Bialystok,
1999; Bialystok, Craik, Klein, & Viswanathan,
2004; Bialystok & Martin, 2004; Mechelli
et al., 2004).

Executive Function
The positive effects of bilingualism are seen
most profoundly in what are known as executive function (or self-control) tasks. These
are tasks that require the child to inhibit preferred patterns of responding (e.g., not jumping up when one should be sitting, not taking
the candy when told not to, doing a task in
a new way rather than an old way; Beaver &
Wright, 2007; Kochanska, Murray, & Harlan,
2000; Luria, 1966; Luria, Pribram, & Homskaya, 1964; Mischel, Shoda, & Rodriguez,
1989; Zelazo & Frye, 1998). Performance in
these executive function tasks is positively
related to classroom success, and difficulties
in these tasks are diagnostic of attentional
and conduct disorders in children (Barkley, 1997; Bradshaw, 2001; Friedman et al.,
2007; Schachar, Tannock, Marriott, & Logan,
1995). Indeed, there has been a surge of interest in the role that executive function plays in
school activities that include planning, organizational skills, maintaining a mental set,
selective attention, and inhibitory control
in cognitive and social development (Blair,
2002; Blair & Razza, 2007; Carlson & Moses,

The study of bilingual children shows
that learning and using two languages
may affect fundamental aspects of
cognitive and neural development that
influence how knowledge is acquired
and used. The positive effects of bilingualism are seen most profoundly in
what are known as executive function
or self-control tasks, and in how the
knowledge that young bilingual speakers have in one language is transferred
to the other language. The author
explores how the findings about cognitive flexibility among bilinguals are critical issues for classroom learning.

Photo: Hanako Yoshida

2001; Dempster, 1992; Graham & Harris, 1997;

Hughes, 1998; Kochanska et al., 2000; Welsh,
Pennington, & Groisser, 1991; Zelazo, Carter,
Reznick, & Frye, 1997).
Here is the intriguing new finding concerning bilingualism: Children who speak
more than one language seem to show developmentally advanced executive control. What
is not known is the extent and kind of bilingualism that fosters increased executive control. What is the mechanism involved? What
are the other possible correlates that have not
been studied that may also be relevant? And,
finally, what should all of this mean for
educational practices?
The idea that knowing and using two
languages results in advanced cognitive
functioning in the area of executive function
and self-control is supported by new research
in cognitive neuroscience. Self-control
usually means stopping oneself from doing
something. Perhaps, then, self-controland
the neural pathways that support itcan be
strengthened by practice. If this is so,
children who speak two languages and must
regularly shift between them must learn to
inhibit the words in one language to speak
the other language. A number of questions
come to mind. One, which is not settled in
the bilingual research literature, is whether
languages comingle or are kept separate. It
is unclear whether all the languages one
knows remain accessible and active while
one language is in use (Brysbaert, 1998;
Gollan & Kroll, 2001). If both languages do
remain active, then bilingualism should pose
a challenge (and an effective training ground)
for inhibitory processes. In fact, a number of
recent studies report individuals use the same
executive functions in controlling attention
as they do in the suppression and separation
of languages (Martin & Bialystok, 2003;
Mezzacappa, 2004).
One standard task for measuring
executive control in children is the
Dimension Change Card Sort (DCCS) task
(Zelazo & Frye, 1998). In the standard DCCS
task, children are asked to sort test cards
into different boxes according to some
dimension (e.g., color, shape) selected by
the examiner. Typically, 3-year-olds have
difficulty switching from sorting by one
dimension (e.g., color) to sorting by
another dimension (e.g., shape) and often
perseverate, sorting by the first rule even
when reminded that there is a new and
different rule. Older children show greater
flexibility, switching to the new rule without
error. This task illustrates the two sides
of executive control: inhibiting responses
(sorting by the old rule) and flexibility
(adapting behavior to new circumstances).
Recent studies document that bilingual
children do better than their age mates in

A child participates in the Dimension Change Card Sort (DCCS) task to measure
executive function.

this task (Bialystok, 1999), and this seems

to be true even when bilingual children have
significantly lower English proficiency than
monolinguals (using the Attention Network
Test; Yang & Lust, 2004).

Word Learning
Past researchall with monolingual children
suggests that children have trouble learning
a new label for an object that has an already
known label. For example, young learners
who know that a horse is called horse
might reject the label brown if it were
applied to it. Many have speculated that this
is one reason why young children have such
difficulty learning adjectives (e.g., Carey,
1978; Markman, 1989; Regier, 1996). However,
I have recently observed (Yoshida & Smith,
2007) that bilingual 2- and 3-year-old
children demonstrated greater cognitive
flexibility in a novel word-learning task when
compared with monolingual children.
The one-label-to-one-object assumption,
called mutual exclusivity, is sometimes considered a positive constraint on early word
learning that promotes the early learning of
nouns, but it is also a constraint that has to
be overcome in later word-learning stages
in order to learn adjectives, synonyms, and
higher order category names (Markman, 1989;
Markman & Wachtel, 1989). Indeed, considerable work suggests that monolingual children
often do benefit in learning object names,
based on the assumption that names refer
one-to-one to categories. Moreover, older

children, when challenged with two labels for

a single object, will search alternative meanings (if horse means horse, then brown
must mean something about the horse;
Klibanoff & Waxman, 2000; Waxman, 2001).
Indeed, in my own work, I have shown that
when a child is given a novel word, for example, stoof when describing a red horse, and
the child already knows the words red and
horse, he or she might take stoof as referring to a novel property of the object (such as
the texture) because the red and horse aspects
of the object already have labels.
When I tested both monolingual and bilingual children in this task, I found that monolingual children show stronger mutual exclusivity
effects than do bilingual children (Davidson,
Jergovic, Imami, & Theodos, 1997). But critically, bilingual children were better able to
inhibit competing meanings in a related task
and thus were better able to learn words with
closely overlapping meanings. This result is
consistent with models of lexical access (a process by which a person accesses words when he
or she speaks) as applied to both bilinguals and
monolinguals, specifically the Bilingual
Interactive Model of Lexical Access (Lwy
& Grosjean, 2000) and the TRACE model
(Elman & McClelland, 1985).

Knowledge Transfer
These ideas about lexical competition
within and between languages are related to
another unresolved topic in research on bilingualism. Lexical competition refers to how an
No ve mbe r 2008 Z e ro to Three 2 7

Photo: Hanako Yoshida

A child participates in another measure of executive function, the Dragon and Bear task.
individual recognizes spoken words. For
example, newly learned words will compete
with existing words that sound similar
(e.g., the novel word cathedruke will compete
with cathedral). It has often been assumed
that if an individual knows two languages, it
would be better if the persons cognitive system
treated them as entirely separate and noninteracting systems. This older idea of separate systems for each language is giving way
to newer evidence on interactions in development and knowledge transfer. In fact, one
intriguing result relevant to the present discussion is that knowledge of two languages
deepens childrens understanding of key mathematical concepts (Charmian, 2007). Most
work in this area, however, has focused on the
positive transfer between first and second languages in areas related to language itself, such
as phonemic awareness, decoding through
phonics and word recognition strategies (reading), use of a broader sense of cognates (recognizing words by their origin or similarity, or
both). This transfer could mean that when children are learning through a minority language
(i.e., their home language), they are not only
learning this language in a narrow fashion but
are also learning concepts and intellectual skills
that are equally relevant to their ability to function with the majority language. For example,
children who learn how to do addition in their
home language do not need to learn how to add
numbers in another language when they learn
English. They simply acquire the new labels for
what they have already learned.
How do children who learn multiple
languages with different language structures
2 8 Z e ro to Three No ve mbe r 2008

develop concepts about objects and the

corresponding language for those concepts?
For bilingual children, the different languages may have unique and complex effects
on development, particularly on object concept development. Studies of early cognitive
development reveal that individuals learn
to categorize concepts differently in different languages. Cross-linguistic studies of
monolingual English, Spanish, and Japanese
speakers suggest that speakers of all of these
languages end up with the same knowledge
but learn the categories in a different order.
In each language, for example, individuals
learn that animates move on their own, eat,
and sleep; that objects are categorized by
function and shape; that substances are
categorized by material; and that their shapes
can be altered by containers and pressure
(Colunga & Smith, 2005; Imai & Gentner,
1997; Smith, Colunga, & Yoshida, 2003;
Yoshida & Smith, 2001). However, there
are subtle developmental differences in
what is learned first in different languages.
English speakers focus on object categories
first, Japanese speakers focus on categories
of animates, and Spanish speakers have
early flexible understandings of objects and
substances (e.g., that a block can be both
a block and some wood; Colunga & Smith,
2005; Yoshida & Smith, 2001, 2003, 2005).
I examined how bilingual children developed an understanding of animates, objects,
and substances in a study that compared
English-Japanese bilingual children, half of
whom lived in Japan and half in the United
States, in an artificial noun-learning task

(Yoshida & Smith, 2007). The results showed

that (a) children learning either language as
their first and only language know that animal
categories are organized by multiple similarities, that object categories are organized by
shape, and that substance categories are
organized by material; (b) this knowledge
develops as children learn language and
seems to be cued by specific and different
linguistic strategies in the two languages
(e.g., determiners in English, verb contrasts
in Japanese); and (c) there are different patterns of development in the two languages,
with English children showing knowledge
of objects versus substances before animates and Japanese speakers showing knowledge of animates versus objects earlier than
objects versus substances (Colunga & Smith,
2005; Imai & Gentner, 1997; Landau, Smith, &
Jones, 1998; Yoshida & Smith, 2001, 2005).
The next question I asked was whether the
knowledge that young bilingual speakers have
in one language is transferred to the other
language. The results indicate a strong yes
although it depends on the strength of the
childrens knowledge in each of the two languages. For example, I sought to determine
how well a bilingual childs knowledge of
the animate-versus-object distinction when
tested in English was predicted by the strength
of the childs knowledge when tested in Japanese
rather than the childs knowledge of English.
Thus, learning new ideas in one language may
benefit understanding of the idea even when
the idea is presented in another language. The
finding suggests that the benefits from being
bilingual may mean more than just behavioral
(attention) control but may also be important
for learning and for transferring knowledge.

The Learning Environment

he issue of knowledge transfer is

critical for an understanding of bilingualism for educational purposes. This
issue, however, has been surprisingly poorly
studied, and thus there is little evidence to
make strong inferences about how and
under what circumstances knowledge may
be transferred into another language, and
about the developmental progression (for

Learn More
University of Houston Cognitive
Development Lab
The Cognitive Development Lab is conducting a variety of studies concerning how
childrens understanding of the world changes
over time. The researchers focus on infants
and childrens language learning as a tool to
better understand their learning processes.

older childrens transfer of literacy skills,

see Legarreta-Marcaida, 1981; Miramontes,
Nadeau, & Commins, 1997; Odlin, 1989;
Roberts & Pennington, 1996). It is also true that
these studies rarely consider the significance
for immigrant children who are mostly learning
concepts in a bilingual learning environment.
The reasons for the failure of the contemporary
cognitive literature to generalize the findings
to immigrants or to examine the possible significance of the cognitive consequences for
immigrant childrenthough the implications
may well be particularly valuable for early
educationare as follows:
1. There is the serious issue of the impact
of sociocultural variables on bilingual
research. For example, not all immigrant
or bilingual populations have the same
mix of cultures and languages, and, further, they are not viewed in the same way
by the majority culture.
2. Identification of the contribution of the
socioeconomic status factor has been
challenging, particularly because there
is an overwhelming proportion of lowincome families among parents who have
limited English proficiency (Anderson,
Capps, & Fix, 2002).
3. Bilingual studies often test children
whose language proficiency can be measured explicitly, so the effect of early
exposure (under 4 years of age) to multiple languages has not been systematically

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The findings about cognitive flexibility

executive control and knowledge transfer
among bilinguals are critical issues for
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standing these fundamental issues should

be considered prior to planning educational
policies for first and second language learning
for immigrant children.
Immigrant childrens educational
concerns certainly involve many additional
factors that have not been mentioned here.
Some of the relevant factors include the
age of acquisition of the second language,
socioeconomic status, cultural background,
the balance of linguistic knowledge of each
language, and how much the first and
second languages differ and in what ways
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Building a truly developmental program of
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of knowledge acquisition even as it advances
our educational and social goals. A

Hanako Yoshida, PhD, is an assistant

professor in the department of psychology at
the University of Houston. Her central research
focuses on language-learning mechanisms and the
cognitive consequences of language learning. She
is a recipient of a Young Scholars award from the
Foundation for Child Development to conduct
language research that aims to identify and
understand the challenges faced by immigrant
families and their children.

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